Just because its cheap, doesn’t make it clean ..

Toxic Coal Ash Spill in Tennessee

That’s the toxic coal ash spill from last month in Tennessee (photo courtesy of The Knoxville News Sentinel). It is a typical hazard of the burning of coal for electricity. All that fly ash has to go somewhere. All around the nation, more than 124 million pounds of toxic heavy metals is typically stored wet in similar empoundments. Those surface empoundments (also known as “wet dumps”) contain heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium, mercury and thallium. Coal ash has poisoned surface water and groundwater supplies in at least 23 states. Coming soon to a drinking water supply near you?!

Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 129 million tons of waste per year, making the waste from coal combustion the second largest industrial waste source in the US. The EPA has been studying what to do about the storage of coal combustion waste for 28 years. Apparently, it was considered too expensive to regulate as a hazardous waste!

Which suggests to us a bigger question about clean coal. Can we afford it?

This is not a trivial question as we take seriously efforts to reform our energy infrastructure. The cry is for clean, green technologies and even bona-fide climate change experts such as James Hansen suggests that this will have to include nuclear power and coal-fired power plants. But, the technology is expensive and following a long seen pattern of the nuclear industry, the coal industry is looking for a handout. Clean coal is never likely to provide power as cheaply as dirty coal plants.

So, the question has to be if clean coal is the best infrastructure investment that this country could make. Let’s put aside nuclear power for another time, and focus on the other alternatives – wind and solar. Both are well established and well studied technologies. We know the patterns by which the wind and the sun wax and wane, and so we know that we will have to store the power from the windy, sunny times for nighttime and cloudy days. That’s means storage – and that’s where an awful lot of R & D could usefully be put. Let’s figure out affordable solar thermal storage and let’s get to work on adiabatic compressed air storage. The Europeans are on to it. Why aren’t we?

Could it be that the wind and solar power industries don’t have as good a public relations operation as the coal power industry and the nuclear industry does? Maybe, then the recent illustration of the overall expense associated with coal and nuclear, particularly with their disposal of the waste products, will factor into the question of where the infrastructure investments should be made. Just because its clean doesn’t make it cheap.

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